When you ask Agnieszka Holland about the historical tensions between Jews and Catholics in her native Poland, she doesn’t have far to look for a reply.
Only as far as her mirror.
Holland, the award-winning director whose superb new film “In Darkness” opens Feb. 10, was born in Warsaw in 1948, the daughter of two journalists, a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. Her parents raised her with no religion. Her mother fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and aided Jewish underground members. Her father escaped from Poland to the Soviet Union when Nazis invaded; his parents were murdered on the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto. When her father returned to Poland after the war, he was arrested by the new Communist government.
But his name, distinctly Jewish in Poland, became both a burden and a badge worn with pride to the youngest Holland. At 6, she was taunted on the playground at school. Her mother explained her father’s background and urged her to be proud of being a Jew. When she applied to film school in Poland, she was rejected, apparently because of her Jewish surname.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Holland’s films are almost always focused on divided personalities, people caught between conflicting imperatives. Those conflicts are, for her, invariably the product of the turbulent history of Poland, the complicated relationship of its Jewish and Catholic inhabitants and the brutal history of its relationship with its bullying neighbors from Russia and Germany.
Holland brings a different perspective to the subject of the Shoah, one that has given her three films on the subject (“Angry Harvest,” “Europa, Europa” and “In Darkness”) a moral complexity and a steely intensity that most other films on the subject lack.
Asked about the complicated morality of her characters, Holland merely replies, “People are like that.”
She explains that Socha, the Polish protagonist of “In Darkness” played by Robert Wieckiewicz, was a sewer worker who helped Jews hiding under the liquidated ghetto of Lvov. But earlier in his life he “had been in prison three times, had robbed a bank.” He had committed himself to going straight after he got married, but the film opens with him robbing a house, so the commitment obviously isn’t a strong one.
“It tells you a lot about him, who he is and what motivates him,” Holland says of the opening sequence. “Look, it’s very difficult to show pure good. It’s easy to make the victims faceless and saintly, and everyone loves children, but the result is sentimental and kitschy. You deprive them of real life.”
Holland’s characters, by contrast, have the sweaty, dirty complications of reality. Solomon Perel, the real-life protagonist of “Europa, Europa” becomes so good at passing for German that he ends up in the Hitler Youth with disturbingly little discomfort. The Polish rescuers in both “Angry Harvest” and “In Darkness” are both initially motivated by cash considerations, and only Socha finally redeems himself by discovering altruism.
“The truth is better than a beautiful lie,” Holland says. “I don’t believe in stories that are sentimental.”
“In Darkness,” which is the Polish selection for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars, is deeply felt but never sentimental. As befits its setting in the sewers of Lvov, the film is redolent of the basic biological facts of life – food, sex, death – with no sugar-coating. The Jewish characters are desperately hungry and when they eat they do so with abandon. Both Socha and some of his Jewish charges are frequently consumed with lust, often at inconvenient times. The dead are treated without formality or dignity, with the result that the one time in the film we hear the mourners’ Kaddish it carries an extra-powerful wallop.
The film derives most of its extraordinary force from Holland’s brilliant manipulation of the claustrophobic sets and clammy darkness with which they are depicted. As Holland proudly proclaims, “Eighty percent of the film is shot in darkness.”
That choice created some obvious technical challenges for Holland and her director of photography, Jolanta Dylewska.
“Normally, you would light the sewer scenes with big lights in the background, but you end up with something that looks spacious and beautiful like the sewer scenes in ‘The Third Man,’” she says. “I didn’t want that. I wanted real darkness. I didn’t want to create the darkness in post-production, in the lab [processing the film]. I wanted the actors to experience the reality. So it became a question of how to make it dark but still have it possible to follow the action.”
The film was shot with the by-now-famous RED camera, “which is very sensitive,” Holland says, and a lot of the light within the frame “came from the actors.” The sewer workers, logically enough, carry large flashlights that provide a significant amount of the film’s illumination in the sewer sequences.
Holland’s use of such unstable, transitory lighting turns a potential liability into an expressive strength. “In Darkness” quickly becomes a film about the literal inability of her characters to see one another, a perfect metaphor for their atomized emotional states, and the sheer difficulty of perceiving another person’s needs when survival itself is at stake.
Holland adds that the pervasive darkness also has a significant effect on the audience.
“It makes people really have to pay attention to the screen,” she says with obvious satisfaction. “In the first week the film played in Poland, to my surprise the theaters were full. But people were coming out with their buckets of popcorn untouched, they were that riveted by the film.”
Holland is understandably concerned that people come away from “In Darkness” with more than stale popcorn.
“I think that people like Claude Lanzmann, who argue that it’s wrong to make fiction films about the Holocaust, are partly right,” she says. “But we need to share with those who never experienced this history, we need to convey the heart of this experience. For that, fiction is probably more efficient. It goes through the heart to the mind.
“Even the effect of a kitschy television series like ‘Holocaust’ – it changed the vision of Americans and Germans on this subject. Perhaps for educational purposes, even embellishment is better than complete silence.”
“In Darkness,” directed by Agnieszka Holland, opens on Friday, Feb. 10, at the Lincoln Plaza (Broadway and 62nd Street) and the Angelika Film Center (Mercer and West Houston streets).